Working with Parents of Exceptional Children

Earlier this month I gave a presentation during the Online Conference for Music Therapists on this subject. I believe that when we treat a child, we are actually working with an entire family as what we do has impact on everyone who cares for that child. As a music therapist of nearly 20 years, it has been my privilege to work WITH many parents and caregivers.  I believe that parents are our partners throughout the process of music therapy.

I am uniquely suited to help music therapists understand what it is to parent a child with special needs because I am one. That’s right, I am the proud single parent of an almost 11 year old boy who is severely neurologically impaired. For years I said that if he sees his ninth birthday it would be a miracle. So, every year when we get to celebrate another birthday I thank God that we had that year and pray for just one more. I spent the first portion of the presentation telling them about what it is really is like from my experience: the added expenses, the housing & car logistics, the grief process, the acceptance process, the advocacy struggles, the sleep deprivation, the social impact, the joy, the blessing, etc. Hopefully it gave them insight into some of the processes that their client’s parents go through.

Several years ago another music therapist, Holly Baxter, and I surveyed many parents and related professional colleagues (OTs, PTs, SLP’s, teachers, etc.) and developed a list of Do’s and Don’ts for working with Parents. These are the basic premises and rules that I function when partnering with parents. I will share it with you here:



Allow for time to interact with parents at the end of sessions (1 clinical hour = 50 min. treatment + 10 min. consultation/paperwork) Forget to communicate with parents – especially if they are not the ones present at therapy time (maybe with the nanny or brought by the bus or in school setting)
Give credence to parent’s issues or concerns – NO ONE knows their child better than they do! (usually) Minimize or dramatize issues or concerns – both the parents and/or your own (i.e. this might not be their only child)
Work with the parents in the best interest of the client. Trust your instincts as a therapist and keep an open mind when parents make suggestions or request specific things. Allow the parent to run your session or tell you how to do music therapy. Conducting a session to please the parents may not be serving the client well.
Keep communication going to explain your choices and/or methods and to keep everyone “on the same page” as far as what is happening in your sessions. Expect parents to know why you do what you do. (You don’t want them saying, “Boy, I wish I could make money for just playing around”)
Use concrete examples when discussing abilities and needs ~ i.e. “Ryan is beginning to use his right hand to strike the cymbal on his left side” rather than, “Ryan is crossing midline.” Expect parents to have the education or knowledge that you have. Technical words can confuse and intimidate when not paired with explanations.


Model skills for the parents ~ i.e. positive reinforcement, shaping, appropriate verbal instrucion, cuing, physical positioning, etc. Expect parents to get it perfect the first time, or maybe anytime. You may have to model things several times.
Give homework that is reasonable and keep the parents accountable to do it. The research shows that no more than 15 minutes, or three activities for home program is reasonable.

The best homework are activities that can be incorporated into everyday activities. i.e. bath time, in the car, before bed, etc.

Overwhelm the parents with too much work, or they may choose to do nothing.

Expect the parent to be a therapist or intuitively know how or when to do homework activities.

Become familiar with the stressors that the parents are under so you can better empathize with them. EVER say, “I know” ~ you probably have no idea what they are going through, even if you have been through a similar situation.
Familiarize yourself with the stressors in your client’s life. i.e. if Grandma is visiting from Virginia, diet changes, medications, sleep, etc. Be rigid in the structure of your treatment session so you can best utilize the iso principle.

Lastly, I shared a song that I wrote during a particularly difficult time in my life. It was three days prior to my then 2 year old’s massive brain surgery, I was contemplating divorce, and my business was going through growing pains. I will share that with you here as well:

God Give Me Strength

God won’t give you more than you can handle
Why does he think so much of me?
I feel like Job, but I know
I can stand on what I believe
God give me strength, grant me peace
Help me to see the blessings too
God give me strength, grant me peace
Help me be the woman I should be
I feel like a juggler with all her balls in the air
And I don’t know which one’s up or down
I give it all to God ‘cause I know
He’ll help me sort it out somehow
People say, “I don’t understand how well you’re taking it all”
I think, “why, oh why, can’t they see?”
My heart’s in turmoil and I feel so alone
Then I remember God’s promise to me
People say, “hold on, keep on”
Other people say, “move on, walk on”
And I fall to my knees
TAG:  I could be. I will be!
by Lillieth Grand
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